Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005
Sightseers taking home more than memories from Waveland
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Dec. 5, 2005
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By Daniel S. Comiskey
WAVELAND, Miss. — When the eye of Hurricane Katrina hit the little town of Waveland in August, the ocean swallowed most of the residents' homes and possessions. Lately, sightseers have been snatching the rest.
Because Waveland remains one of the few towns along the gulf coast with open access to its beach neighborhoods, thousands of tourists have flocked to see the damage. Wandering around collapsed homes and foothills of debris, sightseers are claiming souvenirs from the wreckage of other people's lives.
"They say they're souvenir hunters," said Jeff Watts, a resident of Waveland who is living in a trailer on his land. "That's the same thing as looting in my book."
Although much of Waveland looks like a landfill, with blocks and blocks of it uninhabited, valuable objects remain.
"When we came back, we found my engagement ring and Cartier watch," said Kem Meyer, a Waveland resident who is staying in a tent amidst the ruins of her home.
Musical instruments, antique furniture, tools and jewelry are strewn under piles of lumber and piping that themselves have become objects of looting.
"You have a lot of copper plumbing thefts because the metal is valuable," said Brian Anderson, a Virginia police officer helping patrol the Waveland beaches. "People are even looting the wood because it's from historic homes."
Anderson sees no distinction between the theft of construction materials and the more casual pilfering of "a Waveland souvenir." But he does admit that establishing who is a resident has been extremely difficult.
"A few arrests have been made," he said. "But the biggest challenge is, how do you know who lives here?"
Even longtime residents are having that problem.
"There are too many tourists to tell who's who," Watts said. "It's like Disneyland."
In an effort to curb the disappearance of valuables, those that have already returned to their land have put up signs directed at the sightseers. Some are polite requests to be respectful of the property. Some are not.
"If you loot, we will shoot," read one particleboard sign along the beach. "Stay out or be shot," read another.
Some Waveland residents seem prepared to back it up. Shotguns lean against tents in broad daylight. For those who always thought of the town as a genteel place, the sight is discouraging.
"We have a gun, but I don't anticipate using it," Meyer said. "I guess some people are more paranoid than others."
Many residents feel that if the place wasn't so deserted, sightseer theft wouldn't be a problem at all. Only about one family per block has returned to the coast.
"Because no one is staying here, people are just helping themselves," said Charles Taylor, a Waveland resident whose home wasn't completely destroyed.
Watts recalls coming back to see his neighbor's home reduced to rubble -- only a stone fountain remained.
"Then somebody came by the other night and stole the thing," he said, disgusted. "It was the only thing the old guy had left."
Although looting is a felony, with those arrested being forced to post a $25,000 bond, residents are questioning whether keeping sightseers away from the Waveland coast in the first place might be a better solution. Gulfport, Long Beach, Diamondhead, and other neighboring towns have all closed their beaches. With two policemen or army reserve soldiers brandishing machine guns at every access point, those towns have treated the threat of sightseer theft more seriously.
"They're charging people in Diamondhead for even touching anything they can't prove is theirs," Taylor said.
The Waveland Police Department refused to comment on the looting or the decision to keep the coast open to tourists. While sightseers continued to pick through piles of debris for a keepsake that will recall the great hurricane of 2005, Meyer just shrugged her shoulders at the sight.
"The main things are your sanity and your health," she said. "As long as you don't lose those two things, you're OK."
Daniel S. Comiskey is a graduate student in journalism from Bloomington, Ind.